Now What?

What Republicans Need Right Now Is a Good Internal Fight

Republicans will be in a rush to find a 2016 leader. But what they really need is a good, invigorating, clarifying, drawn-out fight.

Not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, America was still innocent and pro-corporate enough for adults to enthuse openly over the Disney brand. In 1994—the last time Republicans threw a midterm party even bigger than 2010’s —Americans were brainwashed by an all-powerful television ad wherein the Dallas Cowboys’ Emmitt Smith seemed to say he was going to Disneyworld now that he’d won the Super Bowl.

Today, the quaint spectacle of a stage-managed fairy-tale celebration strikes many of us as a load of garbage. But for today’s GOP, the pressure is on to make like Emmitt Smith and move as quickly as possible from total victory to calculated-yet-juvenile victory lap. Tuesday’s political Super Bowl was merely a prelude to the Uber Bowl coming in 2016; for Republicans, going to Disneyworld means going to the White House, and going to the White House means anointing a strong leader who can bring the party’s factions together before the partisan party’s over.

Hence the pressure. Republicans are still yearning for that next Reagan figure—a uniter not a divider, an Obama-negater and Hillary-destroyer, a happy-warrior embodiment of the new GOP brand. More than a Zombie Reagan, they just want someone who can eliminate infighting, take the spotlight off Congress, and get on with the business of taking down the Democrats’ next nominee.

Despite the force of logic at work here, it must be resisted. No matter that the new Republican Congress will be a fractious place, with Senate influence split between the likes of Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell. No matter that the field for 2016 is now brimming with figures who could have been sidelined forever this year—Scott Walker and Chris Christie topping the list. No matter that some Democrats, desperate to realize their own Fantasia, are beginning to demand Hillary Clinton’s immediate coronation.

What Republicans now have the luxury of indulging in is what they need most—an intellectually invigorating, conceptually clarifying, internal battle of wits. Allowing that process to unfold won’t slow the party down. The natural winnowing process will move more quickly than many fear. Potential party leaders can’t help themselves—they’ll swiftly stand or fall on their own merits, some of which (appropriately!) have little to do with ideas and policies. Some might lack the requisite national infrastructure (Walker). Some might seem too programmatic and self-serving (Cruz). Some might lack the fortitude—or masochism—required to endure a grueling campaign (Rubio).

But, yes, there do need to be some ideological blows exchanged. Sorry, establishment Republicans, pitching Hispanics on upward mobility isn’t enough for minority outreach! Apologies, tea partiers, but John Roberts really did stick us with government health care! Alas, neocons, civil liberties at home matter more than those abroad! A party that cannot make these decisions openly and confidently will stumble in 2016.

Unconvinced? Have you learned nothing? In recent cycles, the GOP’s longstanding tradition of choosing the “next guy in line” created a backlog of undigested disagreements so powerful that the acid reflux persists to this day. John McCain and Mitt Romney were resented for failing to represent all Republicans; the quick fix, tacking on a veep who appeased the base, merely entrenched the sense that symbolic tokenism was being used as an avoidance mechanism.

For an even sharper example, consider what just happened to Barack Obama. Only two years ago, with awful economic numbers and a dispirited opposition, he was riding high. But the spirit of the people shifted, even more dramatically than the economy, and the Democrats’ latent disagreements became a massive liability. Yes, Obama’s hypocrisies and broken promises turned Dems’ data-driven, microtargeting from a juggernaut to a jalopy. Rather than using the past two years to recapture some of the principle that powered him into office, Obama led Democrats down an ever-narrower tunnel of identity-political fear-mongering.

The result was a historic blowout. Are you paying attention, Republicans?

It’s true, you can’t count on voters—the bastards—to deliver up a party leader, even in an off-term landslide. Ever canny if uninspiring, John Boehner admitted as much in his recent remarks. Republicans were “humbled” by Tuesday’s wave election, he said. Now is “not a time for celebration.” Take that, Mickey Mouse brigades.

Ultimately, Republicans should realize that the best case for a good old-fashioned ideological cage match has much more to do with their country than their party. In the run-up to Tuesday, the national media groaned with opinion columns expressing our love-hate relationship with voting. Is it cool to tempt people to vote with sexy models? Should we pay ourselves to vote? Shouldn’t we feel horrible about low turnout? Maybe we should scrap midterms altogether!

We can’t decide whether we have too much voting, not enough, or some hideous version of both problems. All the while, the real problem is that too much of government is virtually beyond the reach of voters. It grows; it makes decisions; it evades accountability. Whichever party attacks that problem can help shake us free of our disillusionment with democracy. And unless Republicans are willing to duke it out with one another until the best ideas win, they’ll never shake free of Americans’ lingering disillusionment with the GOP.